Picking Your Battles, Collective Action and Fighting Tokenism: A Talk with Professor Farzana Shain
Read on for a write-up by Laura, a first year PhD student, Postgraduate Decolonise Rep and WOKE Champion
On the 22nd November 2018, Dr. Farzana Shain (Professor of Sociology of Education) gave a talk as part of the Women Of Keele Educate (W.O.K.E) series.
When I heard that Farzana was the speaker for this week I jumped at the chance to write up the event for the W.O.K.E blog. I have been lucky enough to meet with Farzana a handful of times now, as part of the Decolonise Keele project, and at various events around Keele.
Whenever I talk to her, she instills in me this drive and passion for academia.
In fact, she was featured in my last W.O.K.E blog post as a person who offered me some important words of wisdom.
Farzana’s talk was about Tokenism, specifically tokenism in her academic career. She very kindly provided a definition of tokenism:
Tokenism is likely to be found wherever a dominant group is under pressure to share privilege, power, or other desirable commodities with a group which is excluded. Tokenism is the means by which the dominant group advertises a promise of mobility between the dominant and excluded classes. The token does not become assimilates into the dominant group but is destined for permanent marginality. The token is a member of an underrepresented group, who is operating on the turf of the dominant group, under license from it (Laws, 1975: 51).
Farzana explained that in any given situation, the dominant group would cover approximately 60% of the overall group of people, whereas the token group would be made up of only 15%.
She also explained that tokenism can be displayed and ‘felt’ in three different levels – individual, institutional and systemic.
On an individual level, Farzana explained that people are assumed to represent a specific culture or group more than they represent the work that they complete and because of this she has encountered a number of situations throughout her academic career that have placed her specifically within a culture group.
Farzana told us of a time when she was working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) and completing research in local schools.
She was contacted by one of the local schools to ask if she would be willing to give a talk to the students that attended that particular school.
Believing that this was research related, she was interested in this opportunity. That was until the organizer asked her if she could produce examples of Asian Cuisine for the students to try, or give a talk on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Another more recent example Farzana gave was when she was speaking at a Gender and Education conference.
A chance encounter in the bathroom after the talk led a woman to explain to Farzana that she was the ‘token black person’ on the panel.
Similarly, Farzana received an email from a member of staff inviting her to participate in a project due to it having an equalities dimension.
These types of encounters bring with them a whole host of questions that Farzana openly shared with the room.
Mainly, the question of being chosen for the work and research she has conducted, or simply to make the panel diverse.
So how does Farzana aim to combat this tokenism?
She deliberately goes for ‘mainstream’ roles such as a Research Director position to show that she can perform in these roles and perform well.
But within these roles there is a level of institutional tokenism.
Farzana pointed out that women are generally hired for ‘women’s jobs’ such as teaching and learning jobs that require a certain amount of administration.
These roles contain work that is not only unpaid and unrecognized, but also takes time away from research and scholarship, which are the areas that are required for recognition, pay rises and promotion.
As well as this, generally being called upon to represent a culture, or as an expert in equality, is also unpaid or under-paid.
Tokenism is also present on a systemic level.
Farzana used the example of Further Education (FE) to detail this point.
She explained that FE underwent some changes that caused a mass exodus of male employees to leave their professions, causing the number of female employees to rise from 3% to 17%.
But with this came a reduction in salary and an increase in workload where women were expected to shoulder the burden for change in the FE environment.
Once the crisis was settled, the number of men working in these roles began to increase again.
It is only recently that the number of women Vice Chancellors has risen as high as 29%, with it sitting at around 16% for a long time. Still an unequal number for the role, but maybe a step in the right direction.
So, Farzana tries to take more ‘mainstream’ roles wherever she can.
This in itself presents challenges, people just don’t expect women to be interested in these roles, and to be able to complete them as well as their male counterparts.
She also engineers her research to reflect this attitude.
As well as researching topics such as race and gender, she continually stays in the loop with policy research, so that she is known in an area outside of race and gender equality.
Farzana advised us to pick our battles, some things just aren’t worth the fight. But when they are it is the collective voice that will shout the loudest.
Institutional networks such as the Decolonise Keele project and W.O.K.E are challenging power struggles that threaten everyday issues. To read more about Decolonise Keele click here.
If you could be part of the departmental lead for the Decolonise Keele Project read the below poster:
Together, the collective voice can help combat issues such as tokenism.
Farzana’s talk made me reflect upon my own academic life.
It made me think of a time when I was applying for academia and I was told that I would definitely be given a place because universities love ‘mature students’ and mothers.
Not that I had achieved ten distinctions above the required amount for my course.
I research about migrant mothers and, although I’m not a migrant, I’m a mother.
But I also look at the way people are represented, even throughout academic study. I’d like to think that my research will someday pave the way for a different type of representation, for the way migrant mothers, working mothers, and mothers who study are perceived.
And I’d like to think that one day this will enable me to write about more than motherhood, postcolonial science fiction and soap for example.
Farzana makes me believe that we do not have to be just one tick box on a form, we can jump around and tick every box if we want to.
If you would like to join us in the women of Keele Educate project or if you are interested in more information about Decolonise Keele please fill out the below: